I’m going to make a confession about something that I’m a little ashamed about: I don’t watch the nightly news.
I don’t read the newspaper beyond glancing at the headlines.
That fact shames me because I once prided myself on reading two newspapers a day (the local and the big city paper), watching the local and big city news every night, and reading three newspapers on Sunday.
I was on top of things. A well-informed citizen.
During the first Gulf War, my brother and I lived together and we’d watch CNN for hours every night.
Then came September 11, 2001.
I couldn’t leave the TV. I hated watching and at the same time couldn’t stop watching.
But at some point, as I started to make real changes in my life I realized I couldn’t subject myself to the nonstop misery played out in front of me every day. It didn’t matter how sad I was that something happened; that sadness didn’t change that it did in fact happen.
So I now trust that when something really bad happens that I “should” know about as a citizen, it will find its way to me and I can then make a decision on what to do about it and if I need to learn more.
Don’t worry. I go all news-junkie a few months before every election to make sure I’m up on the candidates and the issues so I can do the best job I can when I vote.
I say all that as a prelude to where I’m going.
I just found out about the whole Brian Williams thing.
I’m going to start by saying I don’t know him personally but I’ve always liked what I see. He inspires confidence as he delivers the news and that’s an important quality.
I never sat around wondering if he was telling the truth during a newscast nor during any of the many appearances I’ve seen him make on talk shows or on fundraisers. And I consider him one of Jersey’s favorite sons.
I was proud and happy to see him on the fundraising concert that recognized the heroic first responders of Superstorm Sandy and raised so much money to support the displaced homeowners and others impacted by the storm.
And now I learn that he had….told a lie?….allowed a story with falsities to be told and perpetuated?….I don’t know exactly how to label it.
The incident happened in 2003 and it’s a little unclear to me why it’s coming out now, but it has and the fallout is still happening.
There are people who want to see him fired (what we in HR would refer to as the professional version of “capital punishment” because it’s often a career killer).
There are others who are so stunned they don’t know what to say.
I fall somewhere in between.
This isn’t the first time a famous person has said s/he did something she didn’t, experienced something s/he didn’t, or was somewhere s/he wasn’t at the time s/he said s/he was.
And I’m sure you know people this has happened to in your own life.
I’ve read some of the news reports of this and from what I see it probably happened innocently enough. He started recounting the story and people are excited about it. In the repeating of the story a detail or two gets added and before you know it the story and the facts have really gotten separated somehow.
Science has certainly shown that memory is a strange thing; that perception very much impacts our reality; and we can easily distort facts.
But facts are a funny thing.
I once asked someone to review a document for me so I would have another pair of eyes look at it before I put it up on my website.
She sent me a message on Facebook and told me that the document was “a mess” and “full of mistakes and typos.”
And her note included three exclamation points.
I was devastated.
First of all, I respect this woman and wanted her to like and respect me. I wasted her time by giving her something that was poorly done to begin with?
I started doubting myself. Was my brain so damaged from my car accident in 1999 that I couldn’t trust what I was seeing?
I didn’t want to look at the document but knew I needed to.
I opened the document I’d sent and swallowed hard as I started to read it.
I found one word missing from one sentence and a comma where a period should have gone.
One typo and one wordo (as I call them).
Not what I’d consider “a mess” or “full of mistakes and typos”.
My point is, she’s an intelligent, successful business woman with a reputation for possessing the highest of integrity.
Is she a liar?
I guess some people would think so.
So what lessons are there in the Brian Williams mess for us to learn as professionals and as nice people?
1. Resist the temptation to puff, stretch, or embellish. Even a little. And that can be hard. As people ask you how you were able to achieve something it’s easy to make it sound like you invented something you didn’t or that you’re able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
2. Choose your words carefully. That’s certainly related to number 1 but it goes a bit deeper. I was testing titles for my next book and a few people wanted me to use “integrity” in the subtitle. But some people I ran it past got really irritated by that word feeling that I was insinuating the reader would be someone without integrity.
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep or say you got results you didn’t. I know that’s not what happened in the case of Brian Williams, but that sort of thing is still stretching the truth and it undermines your credibility when you’re found out.
4. Get media training. I know that sounds like an outrageous step but as you work to improve your reach and have a bigger impact…as you put more content out there…the media may just reach out to you for comment on something. Trust me. I’ve made mistakes when being interviewed. You’re never off the record with them and they’re not going to polish up what you say. It gets printed or played, bad grammar, poor word choice and all. At the very least take some public speaking training. Even improv acting classes help. The point is you need specific training to be comfortable talking on your feet. I have a friend who often says “It takes a lot of work to make something look easy.”
5. Set the record straight — quickly. The longer you allow a mistake to be repeated the truer it becomes. Don’t worry about embarrassing the person. They don’t want to be connected with inaccurate information so correct them as gently and respectfully as possible, but for Pete’s sake correct them.
6. Work hard to remain humble and self aware. The old saying “he believes his own press” was used to describe someone who had gotten pretty full of himself. The Brian Williamses, Robert Irvines, Hilary Clinton, and others who repeated tales that made themselves seem even bigger or more important than they are usually people who already have impressive resumes. The story in question really wasn’t going to improve things much. As the character John Milton said in the movie The Devil’s Advocate, “Pride….It’s my favorite sin.”
You’re fabulous just the way you are. Trust that you’ll get all the recognition you deserve (you might have to wait for the next life to get your reward). And know that in today’s transparent world, a little fib or puff is only going to be proven false at some point.
Your reputation is really what your “personal brand” is all about. It’s what you’re known for.
You don’t want to be known for not telling the truth.